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Finding time to write: A lesson from Paula

Monday, September 15, 2008 by Marianne Elliott

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Last week I had a magical writing day. I actually
managed to shut out all the other things clamouring for my attention and simply
write. I wrote 2300 words and I enjoyed it. 

But two days later I was paying the price. Having
taken that day out of my week, I got to Friday with a to do list that was
growing faster than I could cross things off. I had several unpleasant arguments
with colleagues about what I could or could not realistically do in the coming
week and ended up walking home on Friday night in tears. 

The tears were triggered by a
beautiful memorial service for my friend and former colleague
, Sister Paula
Brettkelly
.  I worked with Paula
over the course of five years at the Human Rights Commission and she showed me
what compassion and a heart for justice looks like in action. Her obituary
reads: 

Diminutive and well mannered, she had abundant
courage. She needed it. She did not quail when confronted by Aids sufferers,
nor when faced with hostile gay bashers and Christian fundamentalists.


Paula was, as they say in the obituary, "a
fearless activist in arenas that many New Zealanders would be inclined to
avoid"
and she offered me an example of a deeply spiritual woman who
respected no higher authority on earth than her own "informed
conscience". Although always committed to her church and most especially
to her sisters, the Sisters of St Joseph, Paula refused to accept religious
dogma and held herself to the more difficult but ultimately much more liberating
standard of reaching her own conclusions on critical issues. To Paula an
informed conscience required both communion with God and deep engagement in the
world. 

Paula is the fifth friend of mine to die in recent months and their deaths have all reminded me that our lives are short and precious. Yesterday I was talking with my Mum and she suggested that if I was feeling overwhelmed with the combined load of study, work and writing then I should feel free to drop something. What Paula's life reminds me is that I can listen to my heart and my informed conscience to decide which of these commitments should stay and which should go. 

In the past I've been advised to "follow my heart" but there have been times when that simply wasn't enough to guide me through ethically complicated issues. Paula's example, the combination of an open heart and an informed conscience, is something that I find very helpful.

When I left Afghanistan what I craved most was time and space to think. I knew that I had plunged headlong into my life, and had no regrets about that. But I was learning the incredible value of taking the time to sit quietly with myself and with the wisdom of others. The first half of this year I valued that time above all else and in the space it afforded me I learned and grew. Now I am busy again, and it doesn't feel right anymore. 

So I'll take some time to decide what goes and what stays, but I'll follow the guide of my informed conscience and my heart and I feel pretty sure that the writing will stay. 

But first, a trip to Papua New Guinea, where I spent the first few years of my life. This will be my first time back since we came back to New Zealand when I was about to start primary school and I wonder whether anything will be familiar to me. 

Before I leave on Friday I'll finish an essay (a 'critical review' of the research evidence for the effectiveness of yoga in the treatment of depression and anxiety disorders), get through the organisation of some election related events for work, and post at least one more extract of Zen and the Art of Peacekeeping here.  


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4 Responses to "Finding time to write: A lesson from Paula"

  1. tiny noises says:

    Sister Paula sounds like an amazing woman, I am sorry for your loss.
    What to do, what to do. This is a repeating question in my own life, though for me it is not a matter of figuring out what to let go of, but where to start anew. In the meantime, I am so grateful to be walking this life journey with you and learning as we go. . .

  2. amy says:

    i’m very sorry to hear about your friend. it sounds as if she had a wonderful impact on you. thank you for sharing your stories (with no pressure to continue to do so); they’ve encouraged me to think more deeply and critically about the issues i care about and the way i move through the world. your yoga essay sounds fascinating. travel safely.

  3. homeinkabul says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss. You are in my thoughts and prayers. Travel safely and give yourself some space and time to take care of yourself…

  4. Damon Lynch says:

    How interesting about PNG. I lived in Port Moresby for a couple of years before I went to primary school. My father, Fred Lynch, was working as an accountant for the PNG government. I wonder if your parents knew my parents? My mother’s name was Jennifer.

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